★ ★ ★ ★

Lake Mendota: Governor’s Island

Touring Governor’s Island on Lake Mendota in Dane County:
A quick lark of a lake paddle to make the most of a winter’s day and take in the phenomena of the season before the water freezes and the air temperature dips into the single digits, this was an awesome experience featuring mini ice cliffs and migrating tundra swans, and one we highly recommend for the adventurous paddlers.

Lake Mendota Governor's IslandRating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: December 11, 2016

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

Put-In + Take-Out:
Governor’s Island, off Governor’s Island Parkway, Madison, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.12809, -89.40216

Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 1h 30m
Miles Paddled: 3.5

Tundra swans, Canada geese, koots and duck varieties.


This is not our typical kind of trip on the water. First, we almost always side with rivers, not lakes. And it’s a rare day when we paddle under half a dozen miles. But this outing was intentional, not exploratory. Neither is it the first time we’ve been on either Lake Mendota itself or even noodling around Governor’s Island. Indeed, the very first time Timothy took his first ever kayak onto water was on Lake Mendota, at night, on a chilly Thanksgiving weekend in 2009. Also, Timothy used to live a 10-min walk away from Governor’s Island – no, not in a room at Mendota Mental Health Institute, thank you very much – and remembers this part of Madison’s northside fondly. Especially with his dog.

OK, let’s clear up some ambiguities. One, just like the old joke how the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, Governor’s Island is not an actual island and it has nothing to do with the current or past governors (the governor’s mansion is on Lake Mendota, but on the east shore in Maple Bluff). Governor’s Island is a tear-drop shaped peninsula on the north shore of Madison’s biggest lake and it is on the grounds of the mental health hospital.

While the odd shape is a neat geological formation, it happens to feature a rare and quite pretty outcrop of sandstone, a short shelf of mini cliffs about 15’ tall running about 30 yards. In winter, these rock outcrops are quite stunning – think of them as Lake Superior Ice Caves a heck of a lot closer to home. We timed this brief outing with a winter storm snowfall while the lake was still open, which also meant that the migrating tundra swans were still here. Even though we’ve hiked around the perimeter of the peninsula many times (it’s a fun place to take your dog) and paddled past the rock outcrops in summer on several occasions – it’s a fun experience on a windy day when the waves swell 1-2’! – we’d never been on the lake in winter to see the ice-snow phenomenon.

All in all, it truly was beautiful and majestic, an experience we’ll be sure to do again!

What we liked:
There’s something downright mystical about being on open water when surrounded by a landscape of snow and ice. The incongruous juxtaposition betwixt the two feels a little surreal, solid and liquid separated by a matter of degrees. But leaving aside such highfalutin poetry, it’s frickin’ cool as hell. We’re suckers for sandstone in general, Timothy especially.

The phenomenon of fabulous ice sculptures percolating through porous rock seems otherworldly. And the look of organ pipes or cathedral spires is pretty breathtaking. Row upon row of that on a glass-calm lake during a steady snowfall that allowed for very little visibility past a couple hundred yards, seeing instead sheet after sheet of soft shades of white fall from the sky, it was positively haunting. And to have what felt like the whole lake to ourselves (that ordinarily is extremely popular, and populated, in summertime) was an added thrill.

But it wasn’t just the rock outcrops. Remnant prairie grass, shrubs, and small trees also were plaster-cast in snow-ice formations, as though a bucket of water had been thrown onto them and then froze on the spot.

And then there was the sound of tundra swans – a good hundred of them at least. We had no reliable way of recording their cacophony, but fortunately, there’s this thing called the internet – here’s a reliable comparison. Again, kind of spooky but mostly cool.

We didn’t travel far but that was never the point. Our purpose was simply to be on the water during extraordinary circumstances to see, feel and hear rare phenomena of the season that are too often overlooked for being inconvenient or impractical. Was it cold? A little bit. Wet? You bet. But absolutely worth it.

What we didn’t like:
While there was open water where we first put in, the same spot became slushy only an hour or so later. It wasn’t hard to paddle through – actually, it was kind of neat – but it did make for a tricky exit from our boats. There is no designated boat launch on Governor’s Island, but there are three de facto spots that folks use, all on the mainland near where the peninsula jets out. The shoreline at each location is flat, so accessing the water is pretty easy.

In summertime some of the spots are weedy and mucky, but needless to say this is not an issue in winter. The road leading down to the peninsula, Cinder Lane (accessed off of aptly named Main Drive on the Mendota Mental Health grounds) is steep and accessing it safely in unplowed snow in a vehicle without AWD or 4WD can be a little tricky, believe you me. Thank goodness for snow tires.

If we did this trip again:
We definitely recommend this trip. We feel that it’s one of those experiences that for us can never be fully recaptured. For us, everything was just right to make this quite memorable – the lake still being open, the snow fall, the swans, the ice sculptures, etc. But I’m sure we’d try our luck with it again next year. And if it sounds appealing to you, and you have the right kind of clothing and/or backup rescue person (or strong-swimming dog) in case something goes amiss, then we hope you’ll love this as much as we did.

Related Information:
General: Wright Library
General: Madison Road Trip
Video: SuperiorPaddling.com
Wikipedia: Lake Mendota

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Allen Penticoff
    December 18, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Wish I’d been there. Similar to things you see on Lake Superior.

    We have been “camping” at Govenor’s Island for 27 years… in our 26 ft. sailboat. The wetland cove is a great place to spend the night and much of the day… during those times when the partying boats are not there. Great night Capitol views from the island too.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    December 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Hey Allen,

    Yes, it definitely reminded us of the Lake Superior caves – just on a miniature scale (and a whole lot closer to home)! What we loved most about this was seeing such incredible phenomena right in our own back yards, while still being on the water in a boat. It was truly beautiful.

    That’s very cool, too, about the sailboat “camping.” We should coordinate sometime next year – probably during warmer climes!

    Thanks for chiming in, Allen. Cheers!

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